Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Bandstand is set just after the war in 1945 and focuses on Private First Class Donny Novitski, who is still grieving over the death of his best friend Michael who died alongside him in combat. After serving for four years in the Army, Danny has returned home to Cleveland. He rediscovers his love for music and when he hears of a nationwide song competition, he persuades some fellow veterans to form a band as a way to honor the troops. Donny promised Michael that he'd look in on his wife Julia if something happened to him, but Donny finds it difficult to face her since she may want to know the truth about how he died. When they finally meet, he convinces her to join the band as well, and with their bandmates they find a way to use music to heal the wounds that war has inflicted upon them.
The score includes upbeat jazz and swing-infused songs that are period perfect and reminiscent of the big-band era with music by Richard Oberacker and lyrics by Robert Taylor and Oberacker. Taylor and Oberacker's book is simple, with a story that moves fast even if the plot doesn't have many twists and turns in it. While the book somewhat fleshes out the characters of Donny and Julia, the supporting characters are comparatively two-dimensional and while they all suffer some form of PTSD, and the show does a great job showing how that disorder impacts them and how they all deal with it in different ways, it also doesn't really offer any resolution for their problems except to oddly suggest that fame and fortune make it go away. The second act is also a bit flat, showing minimal impact once Julia finds out the truth about how her husband died, and the ending tries to tie a big, bright, happy bow on a show that has been pretty dramatic up to that point.
Fortunately, the Phoenix Theatre Company cast is excellent. Alex Crossland and Jacqueline Brecker have appeared in numerous shows at various theatres in town and they both do wonderful work here as, respectively, the cocky and haunted Donny Novitski and Julia Trojan, the young widow trying to find a way to survive in a world without her husband. In a performance infused with passion and pain, Crossland beautifully gets across how Donny is troubled and continually haunted by his brothers in arms who didn't return home. With confidence and compassion, Brecker allows us to see that, while Julia has pain, she also has hope and it's due to her association with Donny that they both start on a path to recovery. Both Crossland and Brecker have bright and strong singing voices and a clear connection to the lyrics, which adds emotion and depth to their portrayals.
Crossland and the members of the band that Danny formed–Gianni Palmarini, Alan Mendez, John Elliott, Noah Israel, and Zachary Scott Prall–all play their own instruments throughout the show and do so proficiently. They do a good job in fleshing out as best they can their somewhat underwritten characters while also making them unique and interesting. Linsey Maxson provides some moments of levity as Julia's mother, and the members of the ensemble all efficiently create what seems to be an endless number of characters.
Director Pasha Yamotahari does a wonderful job ensuring the pace of the show is brisk and that the cast all create believable characters. Brian Lavelle's choreography is superb, period perfect, full of energy and extremely well danced by the entire cast. Yamotahari and Lavelle's movement of the male ensemble to depict the haunting way the ghosts from the soldiers' pasts are always around is impressive. Aaron Jackson's multi-level scenic design works well to whisk us from one location to the next, and the impressive lighting design by Aaron Curry is bright but also lush and moody. Maci Hosler's costumes and the hair and makeup designs by Chris Zizzo are period appropriate. Dave Temby's sound design is clear and crisp.
Bandstand may have a few issues with its book, but its upbeat score and fleshed-out main characters go a long way to help to overcome those flaws. With an excellent cast, spotless direction, and rich creative elements, The Phoenix Theatre Company's production of this musical that touches on the pain of war but also on optimism and hope is a crowd-pleasing winner.
Bandstand runs through October 23, 2022, at The Phoenix Theatre Company, 1825 N Central Avenue, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit phoenixtheatre.com or call 602-254-2151.
Director/Musical Staging: Pasha Yamotahari
Cast (in alphabetical order):
*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the U.S.